My mother, dead now to this world but still roaming free in my mind, wakes me some mornings before daybreak. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a quitter."
I have heard her say that all my life. Now, lying in bed, coming awake in the dark, I feel the fury of her energy fighting the good-for-nothing idler within me who wants to go back to sleep instead of tackling the brave new day.
Silently I protest: I am not a child anymore. I have made something of myself. I am entitled to sleep late.
"Russell, you've got no more gumption than a bump on a log."
She has hounded me with these battle cries since I was a boy in short pants.
"Make something of yourself."
"Don't be a quitter!"
"Have a little ambition, buddy."
The civilized man of the world within me scoffs at materialism and strivers after success. He has read the philosophers and social critics. He thinks it is vulgar and unworthy to spend one's life pursuing money, power, fame, and--"Sometimes you act like you're not worth the powder and shot it would take to blow you up with."
Life had been hard for my mother ever since her father died, leaving nothing but debts. The family house was lost, the children scattere.d My mother's mother, fatally ill with tubercular infection, fell into a suicidal depression and was institutionalized. My mother, who had just started college, had to quit and look for work.
Then, after five years of marriage and three babies, her husband died in 1930, leaving my mother so poor that she had to give up her baby Audrey for adoption. Maybe the bravest thing she did was give up Audrey, only ten months old, to my Uncle Tom and Aunt Golddie. Uncle Tom, one of my father's brothers, had a good job with railway and could give Audery a comfortable life.
My mother headed off for New Jersy with my other sister and me to take shelter with her brother Alen, poor relatives dependent on his goodness. She eventually found work patching grocers' smocks at ten dollars a week in a laundry.
Mother would have liked it better if I could have grown up to be President or a rich businessman, but much as she loved me, she did not deceive herself. Before I was out of grade school, she could see I lacked the gifts for making millions or winning the love of the crowds. After that she began nudging me toward working with words.
Words ran in her family. There seemed to be a word gene that passed from her maternal grandfather. He was a schoolteacher, his daughter Lulie wrote poetry, and his son Charlie became New York correspondent for the Baltimore, Herald. In the turn-of-the-century American South, still impoverished by the Civil War, words were a way out.
The most spectacular proof was my mother's first cousin Edwin. He was managing editor of the New York Times. He had traveled all over Europe, proving that words could take you to places so glorious and so far from Virginia sticks that your own kin could only gape in wonder and envy. My mother often used Edwin as an example of how far a man could go without much talent.
"Edwin James was no smarter than anybody else, and look where he is today." my mother said, and said, and said again, so that I finally grew up thinking Edwin James was a dull clod who had a lucky break. Maybe she felt that way about him, but she was saying something deeper. She was telling me I didn't have to be brilliant to get where Edwin had got to, that the way to get to the top was to work, work, work.
When my mother said that I might have the word gift, she started trying to make it grow. Though desperately poor, she signed up for a deal that supplied one volume of "World's Greatest Literature" every month at 39 cents a book.
I respected those great writers, but what I read with joy were newspapers. I lapped up every word about monstrous crimes, dreadful accidents and hideous butcheries committed in faraway wars. Accounts of murderers dying in the electric chair fascinated me, and I kept close track of fast meals ordered by condemned men.
In 1947 I graduated from Johns Hopkins and learned that the Baltimore Sun needed a police reporter. Two or three classmates at Hopkins also applied for the job. Why 1 was picked was a mystery. It paid $30 a week. When I complained that was insulting for a college man, my mother refused to sympathize.
"If you work hard at this job," she said,"maybe you can make something of it. Then they'll have to give you a raise."
Seven years later I was assigned by the Sun to cover the White House. For most reporters, being White House correspondent was as close to heaven as you could get. I was 29 years old and puffed me with pride. I went to see mother's delight while telling her about it. I should have known better.
"Well, Russell," she said,"if you work hard at this White House job, you might be able to make something of yourself."
Onward and upward was the course she set. Small progress was no excuse for feeling satisfied with yourself. People who stopped to pat themselves on the back didn't last long. Even if you got to the top, you'd better not take it easy. "The bigger they come, the harder they fall" was one of her favorite maxims.
During my early years in the newspaper business, I began to entertain childish fantasies of revenge against Edwin. Wouldn't it be delightful if I became such an outstanding reporter that the New York Times hired me without knowing I was related to the Great Edwin? Wouldn't it be delicious if Edwin himself invited me into his huge office and said, "Tell me something about yourself, young man?" What exquisite vengeance to reply,"I am the only son of your poor cousin Lucy Elizabeth Robinson."
What would one day happen was right out of my wildest childhood fantasy. The New York Times did come knocking at my door, though Cousin Edwin had departed by the time I arrived. Eventually I would be offered one of the gaudiest prizes in American journalism: a column in the New York Times.
It was not a column meant to convey news, but a writer's column commenting on the news by using different literary forms: essay devices, satire, burlesque, sometimes even fiction. It was proof that my mother had been absolutely right when she sized me up early in life and steered me toward literature.
The column won its share of medals, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. My mother never knew about that. The circuitry of her brain had collapsed the year before, and she was in a nursing home, out of touch with life forevermore.
I can only guess how she'd responded to news of the Pulitzer. I'm pretty sure she would have said, "That's nice, Buddy. It shows if you buckle down and work hard, you'll be able to make something of yourself one of these days."
"If there's one thing I can't stand, Russell,it's a quitter." Lord, I can hear her still.